The Soldier Dead Come Home
by DAVID L. COHN
WE SHALL soon witness in this country the strangest and most melancholy immigration movement in the history of man. The immigrants are all dead men and women — members of the armed forces of the United States, or civilians attached to the armed forces. They will come from the uttermost reaches of the earth: from Greenland, Australia, New Guinea, China, Burma; from eighty countries and all the continents. They were killed in action. They died of disease. They met death in accidents, by the bite of snakes, the claws of tigers. There will be no immigration formalities when this company arrives at our ports. All of them died for this country. They come home to be buried in the American earth. Their number is nearly three hundred thousand.
In military cemeteries scattered around the world lie the American dead of the Second World War. Row upon row they lie in neat graves laid out with the mathematical precision of the military, since for the soldier there is a discipline of burying as well as of living, by contrast with the amiable disorder that marks the life of the civilian and his final resting place in a monument-cluttered burial ground where no two graves are identical. Yet in one important respect, military order disappears at the grave’s edge. General officer and buck private molder to dust side by side. Here white and Negro, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, rich and poor, saint and sinner, mingle in death without sign of distinction or difference except that Gentiles lie under the Cross, and Jews under the Star of David.
As battles were fought through North Africa, Sicily, Italy, France, and Germany, and from island to island of the Pacific until the last enemy surrendered, while men stood guard in such places as Alaska, Greenland, South Africa, and the Caribbean, the victorious forces of the United States left their dead throughout the world. They number approximately 328,000 soldiers, sailors, marines, and coastguardsmen, of whom 17,617 are unidentified. In addition there are an estimated 19,625 isolated graves, all over the earth, whose location no man knows. Thus our military dead constitute a city as large as Rochester, Denver, or Louisville. The largest of the cemeteries in which their remains are gathered is at Margraten, Holland, with 18,636 graves. The next largest is at Manila, with over 11,000 graves. The smallest cemetery is Sleepy Lagoon on Makin Atoll, Gilbert Islands, where 21 men are buried.
The War Department has been authorized by Congress to bring home the remains of all our military dead, including those of the Navy. The execution of the program is in the hands of the Office of the Quartermaster General, commanded by Major General T. B. Larkin, an engineer officer who ably served throughout the war at important posts in North Africa, Italy, and France.
From inquiries now being received by the War Department, it appears that more than 80 per cent of the people want their dead brought home for burial in a private or national cemetery. This is a higher percentage of home-returning soldier dead than obtained after the First World War. Then we brought home the remains of 45,833 men, and left overseas the remains of 30,902, the percentage of the returned being slightly over 60. The difference in these figures gives cause for wonder. They may express, subconsciously at least, lack of American confidence in the future of world peace, so that families want their dead at home rather than abandoned to what they fear may become a wilderness of war.
The War Department plan contemplates the return to this country not only of the remains of soldiers, but also of civilians who died overseas while attached to the armed forces — as newspaper correspondents or members of the War Shipping Administration, American Red Cross, American Field Service, United States Compensation Commission, the Ferrying Service of the Air Transport Command. All the unknown dead of the Second World War will be brought home, but only one of the unknowns will be buried beside the Unknown Soldier of the First World War. The others will be interred in national cemeteries.
THE present program of repatriation of the war dead is, whatever one may think about it, in accord with long-established American precedent. During the Civil War, Congress authorized the War Department to establish national cemeteries for the removal thereto of the military dead of all our wars who had not been suitably interred, and to record their burial places. The work began during the conflict and was ended in 1868. Between the years 1899 and 1903, approximately 6300 remains of SpanishAmerican War soldiers were repatriated from the Caribbean and the Pacific. The remains of some 46,000 soldier dead of the First World War were brought back to the United States in 1920-1921.
The task of returning our dead of the Second World War is by its very nature melancholy. Before any corpse is sent home, there must be an elaborate checking and cross-checking of records and identification of bodies, to make certain that each man is buried under his own name. These are the duties of the Graves Registration Service of the Quartermaster Corps. It is surprising to realize that during the nineteenth century, registration and burial services for soldier dead were performed largely by civilian contractors. But it was an arrangement that proved highly unsatisfactory with respect to identification and burial of our soldier dead. In the Second World War, men of the Service, trained before going overseas, removed the fallen from the battlefields as rapidly as possible, took the remains to the temporary cemetery established for a given region, buried them, and kept accurate records. The Service (still at work) went to extreme lengths to assure the identification of corpses mangled or burned beyond outward recognition, and its task was complicated because so many airmen fell into the sea or in almost inaccessible places on land.
Many identifications require long investigation and world-wide correspondence, sometimes extending over several years. The only clue to one soldier’s identity was a letter from a girl addressed to “Dear Ed.” Correspondence with her and a search of War Department records revealed the organization to which the man had been assigned, while contact with his unit brought the information that Ed was missing after battle in an area where an unidentified body had been found. Checks of Ed’s description and dental charts established the final identity of the body.
Another unknown, buried in Italy after a beach landing, was identified by tracing to a girl’s school a ring worn by the deceased; there it was found to have been owned by the wife of a naval officer who was listed as missing in that action. Scientific processes, including the facilities of the laboratories of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, are used to the fullest in establishing identification. Dental charts are especially useful where fingerprints have been obliterated by burning or decomposition of the body; chemistry reveals faint laundry marks or other marks found on the clothing of the deceased; sometimes peculiar bone formations caused by childhood injuries have served when all other clues failed.
Search teams of the Graves Registration Service, during the war, combed the world for missing men. Once the Service sent a detail more than one hundred miles into the interior of Sidi bou Zid on the word of an Arab that an American was buried there in an unmarked grave. The grave was found. Local farmers supplied the date when the flyer had been shot down. The Air Forces identified the only plane lost in that area on that date, and positive identification was made of the man through his personal effects.
How successful the Service has been in its work of identification is shown by the fact that of 268,071 soldier bodies recovered, only 17,617, or 6.6 per cent, remain unidentified. Therefore the great majority of families who lost relatives in the war may be certain that they have been identified beyond doubt.
The repatriation of our dead, rather than final interment in military cemeteries abroad, presents a debatable case even if it has been little debated. It has been opposed on quite tenable grounds by the Social Service Commission of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of New York. “The plan,” it said, “by its overemphasis of the mortal body is in conflict with the thought of the Christian Church from the days of the Apostles. It represents, initially, a basic misconception of the significance of our rapidly changing bodies, which on earth have been but the vehicle or vestment of immortal spirits. The souls of our war dead, freed from the limitations of the flesh, are even now being confronted with the opportunity to grow in spiritual stature and glory, a fact which our excessive concern over the bodily remains fails to proclaim.”
The Commission opposed the bill on mundane as well as spiritual grounds, and was joined by the Department of Social Service of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, which wrote President Truman saying that the repatriation of the war dead would be a “costly pagan venture.” Both of these groups believe that “with millions of people suffering and dying from lack of food, clothing, and shelter, . . . the bereaved will, on reflection, conclude that it is more truly Christian for us as a nation to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and administer to the living, than to yield to the natural desire to try to have the bodies of our beloved dead brought home.”
Congress, which unanimously passed the bill to bring back the war dead, may have been moved to vote for the bill lest it be confronted with the far more costly and unwieldy alternative of sending relatives of the deceased all over the world to visit national cemeteries. That many parents of dead soldiers would prefer to visit graves overseas rather than have the remains sent home is shown by a moving letter from a father and mother who lost all four of their sons in the war. Writing to the War Department from Utah, they say: —
. . . As parents of four service men who so bravely and gallantly left our home to join various branches of the U. S. Forces for the purpose of defending the rights and freedom of a free people . . . our emotions have run high with other citizens, that our sons were physically fit and able, ready and willing to become involved in such a mighty conflict. And now that the firing is over and quiet prevails in the valley and around our home, we have time to meditate over what has happened in the different battlefields and why our losses should be four-fold. However we take consolation in the fact that our boys were brave and good servicemen, they were also fine sons, and . . . we are doing as well as anyone could be expected to do when such a catastrophe comes into the lives of a father and mother.
The writers then add: “It is not our desire that our four sons shall be . . . brought back to us . . . for re-burial. It is our sincere desire ... to visit the sacred spot where our boys are now resting and as we hope in peace unmolested.”
Why, on the other hand, parents want the remains of their soldier sons sent home is indicated in a letter from one mother to the War Department. She says: “I plead with you that you bring back our son to us. He is our only son and we feel that his remains should be here so that we could console ourselves with frequent visitations to his grave.”
The saddened hearts of the war-bereaved make their pleas for many reasons. The wife of a naval officer killed overseas asked for the return of his body because their child, she said, had never seen her father. The father, therefore might always be something of a wraith to the child — a mysterious stranger whom she had never known and to whom she seemed unrelated — if his body should not be returned.
A small minority of mothers protest against the return of their war dead. One of them says: “ I wish to say our dear boy will never be dead. If the good Lord saw fit to take him, leave him where he is. Not for one minute would it lighten my heart to have him moved here.”There are protests, too, upon mundane grounds. “ I am writing you,” says a mother, “about returning the bodies of the soldier dead. Our son is buried in North Africa, so you must know I am not biased. You should use those millions of money to feed and help the living.” This correspondent also objects to the repatriation program on another score. The remains of thousands of men cannot be brought home. Their graves are in oceans or rivers, in places upon land that will forever elude the eyes of searchers. Hence: “There are five families in just our small community whose sons’ bodies cannot be brought home. Two are buried at sea. Three are in unknown graves. It is very unfair to their parents and wives that the bodies of the others should be returned. Let them all rest in peace where they are.”
But soon tens of thousands of the American soldier dead will come home. From ships of the dead their bodies will be taken to funeral trains of the dead. As Abe Lincoln went home to Springfield from Washington, through a weeping countryside, so will they go in their black trains. This is what war means.
Every state of the Union, and possibly every county, will take back its own. It would be well if the people of each community should go to the railroad tracks when the trains of the dead go through slowly. Let them watch for the big locomotive coming slowly round the curve, white steam hissing at its condensers, purple flags at its boiler’s head, the long line of silent cars following. There let them stand: the old, the young, the children fresh from school; so that, honoring their dead, it may be brought home to them how costly is war, and they may search in their hearts for an answer to man’s most deadly riddle.